Father Benson is reputed to have said that no religious community should survive past the first generation. I think that what he meant by that is that no religious community will survive if it simply addresses the needs of a bygone era. We aren’t in the business of addressing the needs of the Church from a century ago, or a decade ago, or even a year or a week ago. Each community needs to found itself anew for the present age.
In many ways we have done that in this community. In each generation our community has re-formed, if not re-founded itself, to meet the needs of the contemporary Church. When the Church needed solid catholic priests for parishes, SSJE provided that. When the Church needed missionaries in underserved areas, and places far removed from the center of things, we provided that. When people needed food, or clothing, or education, or medical care, we provided that. When the Church needed people to help form those in leadership, whether lay or ordained, we provided that. When the Church needed competent spiritual directors and retreat leaders, we provided that.
Like our predecessors in the Society our call today is to drink deeply from our own history and tradition, but not to be antiquarians. We are called today to look at ourselves through the lens of our histories, and to discover what it is from the past that may be of service in the present. To recover, or uncover, or discover those elements of our histories – Benedictine, Dominican, Ignatian, Vincentian – that speak to the needs of the contemporary Church. We are called to found a new Society of Saint John the Evangelist for this age.
To do so, we need to know our histories; to drink deeply enough that we are refreshed, but not so deeply as to become bloated and unable to move. We need to be prepared to look critically at our histories and see what can be carried into the future, and what also needs to be respectfully laid aside.
The work of the historian is to study the past from a variety of angles and to discover the various histories in their fullness and complexity. Unlike the antiquarian, the work of the historian does not end there. The historian needs to interpret those histories in light of the present moment so that the lessons of the past are relevant to the present and the future.
That, I believe, is what Father Benson did in the early days when our community was founded. He looked to the past to see what it might hold for the present and the future. This remains our task today: to look at our past and to discover what it might say to the present and the future. In that way, a new Society of Saint John the Evangelist will be founded, one that will address, not the needs of the Victorian Church, but the needs of the church as it exists today, and perhaps tomorrow.